Category Archives: Book Reviews

‘Nightmare Carnival’ – A Review

Themed horror anthologies are a dime a dozen. Good ones are a little harder to come by, but one can usually count on editor extraordinaire Ellen Datlow to deliver a decent if not always standout anthology. In this case, however, she nails it to the fucking wall. Circuses, fairs and carnivals are certainly fertile territory for horror writers to explore, but the danger of falling into cliched territory here is always lurking somewhere nearby like a drug-addled, urine-soaked clown skulking in the shadows, just waiting to snatch some unsuspecting kiddie off the midway and subject it to horrible acts of depravity . . . like exposing the poor thing to clown “comedy.”

Nightmare Carnival is not the only such anthology to tackle this concept—just in the last few years we’ve also gotten Dark Carnival edited by Jolene Haley, et al, the Amazon-published The Midnight Carnival: One Night Only, the dark urban fantasy collection Carniepunk, John Ledger’s hilariously named horror-humor mashup clownthology series Floppy Shoes Apocalypse (three books and counting), the F. Paul Wilson-curated Freak Show, the massive, multi-volume Carnival of Fear anthology, and probably several others I’m unaware of. For my money though this is one you need to read. Wilson’s Freak Show might give it a run for its money in terms of quality, but it’s less a true anthology than an exquisite corpse-style novel written by various authors, so I’m only half counting it here.

Datlow has been in the short story editing business for decades, and her instincts rarely go askew. She doesn’t just pick out fiction from the hot horror writers of the day, though this particular collection reads like a who’s who of au current dark fiction masters: Stephen Graham Jones, Nick Mamatas, Genevieve Valentine, Nathan Ballingrud, Jeffrey Ford and Livia Llewellyn are all in here. With that level of talent you know you’re not going to get another half-baked monster clown story, and there’s nary a one in the bunch. I’m not saying there aren’t some bad clowns here, but they aren’t Pennywise rehashed, thank fuck. Nothing against Pennywise, mind you, but he’s been done to death, no pun intended.

What you do get is a fairly nice mix of stories ranging from noirish stuff (mostly) rooted in reality (the collection’s bookend stories Scapegoats by N. Lee Wood and Screaming Elk, MT by Laird Barron) to the bleakest of existential surrealism (Glen Hirschberg’s A Small Part in the Pantomime, Robert Shearman’s The Popping Fields and Terry Dowling’s Corpse Rose), and everything in between.  Few of these stories go where you expect them to go, which is exactly what you want in a collection like this.

As is generally the case with Datlow’s collections, almost every story in this book is worth reading at least once, and several demand a reread. Priya Sharma’s The Firebrand and A.C. Wise’s And the Carnival Leaves Town are very dark mystery stories with a supernatural twist. Wise’s story in particular, about a detective investigating a family that goes missing after the carnival has moved on, is especially good and still gives me chills when I think about it. I’ll rate it the second-best story in the anthology, and that’s saying a lot. Shearman’s The Popping Fields is one of the most haunting pieces in this collection, a morose tale of a balloon animal guy slowly losing touch with reality as he grows older. Undoubtedly, though, the star of this collection is Nathan Ballingrud’s Skullpocket, which reads like Tim Burton filtered through George Romero and is absolutely unforgettable. I read this story online before I bought this book and it was that which prompted me to buy it, as I figured it wouldn’t be there forever and I wanted to read it again. And again. Hell, it might just become a Halloween tradition at my house. Just sayin’.

Moving on, Genevieve Valentine’s The Lion Cage, about a pair of mountain lions that are a little off somehow, feels almost like a throwback to early twentieth century fiction in this vein in that most of the horror is implied rather than spoken, but the story is all the stronger for that. The Hirschberg story also struck just the right tone for me, and clearly owes a debt to Peter Straub’s A Dark Matter, in the best of ways. Jeffrey Ford’s fun and audacious Hibbler’s Minions serves up a nice dose of humor with its horror, delving into the hitherto unexplored Lovecraftian implications of a flea circus. The Darkest Part by Stephen Graham Jones,  about young men who decide to torture and murder an innocent clown as revenge for some horrific childhood experiences at the hands of another, er, less innocent clown was the grittiest (and bloodiest) story in the anthology but, as one expects from Jones, is at once thoroughly disturbing and entertaining.

In fact, only two stories in Nightmare Carnival fell short for me. Livia Llewellyn’s The Mysteries is just a wee bit too abstract for its own good, though it’s beautifully written and has some nice subtle nods to Clive Barker. I will be reading it again to see if I missed anything, because I feel I did. The other less than stellar entry here was Nick Mamatas’s Work, Hook, Shoot, Rip, about the consequences of a foreign wrestler taking on a gigantic redneck in the Jim Crow-era South. The story again was well-written but the ending left me unsatisfied, and the whole thing was a bit short on the horror, more of a somber human interest piece than anything. Still worth reading. Everything else in this book was just insanely good and more than made up for the moderate imperfections in those two stories. I’ll definitely read the entire collection again at some point.

Grade: A

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Gemma Files’ ‘Experimental Film’ – A Review

Many and many a year ago I read Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images. At least, I think I did. I remember owning a copy of the paperback published in 1990, the one with the little window cut into the cover through which you can see the main character’s (unconvincingly) frightened visage. For some reason those covers with windows were popular in the 90s. Anyway, I had it for awhile—bought it new, in fact. So I must’ve read it, right? The thing is, I can’t remember a damn thing about it other than that it had something to do with a secret horror film from the Golden Age of cinema. To be honest, I may or may not have finished it. My defense is that, as a teen I really wasn’t ready for the kind of veddy veddy British horror that Ramsey Campbell specializes in. I’ve since become a massive Campbell fan, incidentally.

That brings us to Experimental Film by Canadian author Gemma Files, which tackles something quite similar. I am a regular listener of the This Is Horror podcast hosted by Michael David Wilson and Bob Pastorella, and on the strength of Files’ interview I purchased this book. I do not regret it. Not one single little bit.

The story follows Lois Cairns, a semi-famous Toronto-based film critic specializing in indie and experimental films (hence the title) who discovers via local filmmaker Wrob Barney’s pretentious surrealist project Untitled 13—a sort of film collage—snippets from an unknown director’s silent-era short which appears to depict a cruel and little-known Wendish demigod called Lady Midday. Seeing the incredible potential in bringing to light a lost female filmmaker, the otherwise frazzled and burned out Lois suddenly finds new purpose and begins to dig into the history of what turns out to be an entire cache of films featuring the same frightening character. Adding to the intrigue is the fact that said director, one Iris Dunlopp Whitcomb, disappeared from a moving train before making a name for herself, and her cache of films was discovered half-buried in the woods somewhere north of Toronto. Clearly someone wanted them forgotten.

Lois recruits Safie Hewson, a promising student from her days as a teacher at a now-defunct film school, to help her produce a documentary about Whitcomb and her films, and that’s when things really start to go sideways. As it so happens, Lois and Whitcomb have much in common, right down to both of them having special-needs sons who are socially dysfunctional but nonetheless remarkably individualistic and creative. Lois’s child, Clark, is autistic, communicating with the world around him through TV commercial catchphrases and other bits and bobs of language picked up from his exposure to media. Lois too, as with Whitcomb herself, is someone who doesn’t quite jibe with society. These connections prove to be more than just coincidental as Lois’s growing obsession with Iris Whitcomb and, by extension, Whitcomb’s own obsession, Lady Midday, pull her and her family into darker and darker psychological and spiritual territory.

Lois Cairns is a barely disguised analog of the book’s author, and that is, in fact, it’s greatest strength. There’s a reason why ‘write what you know’ has become a well-worn standard of authorial advice—it lends the story verisimilitude, and a writer often feels more confident when she knows what she’s talking about, and that often translates to a bolder voice and more interesting story choices. Files utilizes her immense knowledge of film and art history and the local film scene in and around Toronto to great effect. But lest you think the story gets carried away with the almost clinical observations of Lois’s chosen field, Files emotionally anchors the story with Lois’s chronic struggle with self-doubt and  her painfully acute observations on the joys, fears and frustrations of being a parent to an autistic child. These aspects alone are a sturdy framework for drama and mystery of literary caliber; that they are in fact the backdrop to a horror novel with a fascinating and frighteningly original villain that’s somewhere between cosmic Lovecraftian monster and exotic folkloric deity is damn near miraculous.

Gemma Files is a true spiritual successor to Peter Straub and Ramsey Campbell, masters at creating brilliant protagonists who attempt to hide from the horror of reality by cloaking it in rationality and intellectualism, only to have their conceits ripped apart in the end. For my money, this is horror at its best. Certain popular horror authors choose to gear their fiction more to the Everyman, and there’s certainly no shame in that, but I tend to get more scares from the work of writers like Gemma Files, who understands what it’s like to be a hyper-aware creative type in a world full of people who don’t get you. That’s dreadful enough on its own, but when you throw in something otherworldly on top of that, well, that’s what I call a horror novel.

Grade: A+

John McIlveen’s ‘Hannahwhere’ – A Review

The story begins with the brutal murder of a young mother by her abusive drug-addicted boyfriend, Travis, as her seven-year-old twin daughters, Anna and Hannah Amiel-Janssen, watch in helpless terror. When Travis flees the scene with Anna in tow, we know we’re in for a harrowing ride. Two years later, Hannah, the other twin, is discovered nearly comatose behind a dumpster half way across the country. Travis has since been captured and is serving out his sentence for the murder of the girls’ mom, but Anna is still missing. Hannah’s case is handed over to social worker Debbie Gillan, who just happens to be dealing with some bad shit of her own as long-repressed memories of abuse are beginning to surface.

As I’ve said before, one of my major pet peeves in fiction is when an author writes kid characters poorly. Dean Koontz is notorious for this, or at least he used to be. Frankly, I haven’t read any Koontz since probably my mid-twenties. Perhaps I should remedy that. So, yeah, terribly written child characters drive me up the wall. Kids are people too, and they deserve the same level of development and attention to detail as adult characters. Luckily for McIlveen, he nails it, and that’s all-important for a book like this, where unraveling the mystery surrounding the young twins is the hook. Of course, given that he is the father of five daughters himself (and what do you wanna bet a couple of those are twins?), he really had no excuse to get it wrong there. Well, he didn’t. Hannah and Anna are not merely foils for Debbie; they’re well-drawn characters in their own right: smart, charming and talented. Debbie too is wholly likeable, though not without her flaws. That’s important.

In fact, if McIlveen had done nothing else with this story but explore the psychology and history of these three protagonists, it would’ve been a solid if not particularly extraordinary novel. But he also invests all three of them with supernatural powers of a rather unique sort. At the risk of revealing too much, I will simply say that the book’s title is not merely symbolic. Hannahwhere is an actual place in this story, and its origins and connection to the twins is fascinating. If I have a complaint here, it is only that I would love to have spent more time in Hannahwhere, to see it fleshed out a bit more. I could absolutely see someone like Peter Straub giving the place the time and attention it deserves, delving more into the intricacies of its flora and fauna, weather patterns, and what-have-you. Even so, the story is pretty tightly paced and that will appeal to most readers, so I can’t complain too too loudly about this.

The main thing to understand going into this is that we just can’t help but empathize with these people, which is a blessing, but it’s also a curse, as it makes the conclusion all the more devastating. Ordinarily I prefer my fiction to have some stylistic flourishes, to play with language and ideas, even at the risk of falling into a bit of abstraction. The last book I reviewed, Paul Meloy’s The Night Clock, was just such a book. But it was perhaps just a little too abstract, and to be sure, few of the characters were very likeable. Hannahwhere is nearly it’s spiritual opposite, with fairly straightforward prose stripped of all pretensions, put entirely in the service of its story. And here I was grateful for that, as it provides the narrative with a deceptively simple and sweet allure that is all the more unnerving for its dark subject matter and that walloping gut-punch of a finale that well and truly hurt. Exactly as it should have. Mr. McIlveen earned himself a new fan with this one for sure.

Grade: A

Paul Meloy’s ‘The Night Clock’ – A Review

Describing the plot of Paul Meloy’s debut novel The Night Clock in a few sentences is damn near impossible, but I’ll give it a shot. So, basically, there are a group of individuals scattered across the earth who have certain powers (all of their powers differ from each other) who together make up the titular timepiece. It’s not a literal clock but rather the combined force of these individuals, and it profoundly impacts what’s called Dark Time, which is perhaps better described as Dream Time as it is the time continuum that presides over dreams, and it is not linear. It travels in every direction at once, and it’s infinite, because of course it is. Why wouldn’t it be?

Anyway, whenever the number of these folks—individually called Firmament Surgeons—drops to a dangerously low level, it invites a dream monster called the devil-in-dreams to try to gain permanent control of Dark Time, thus giving it the power to end everyone’s dreams, and without dreams humans apparently become bitter, forlorn shells of their former selves, which is exactly what the devil-in-dreams wants, so it can feast on humanity’s hopelessness and despair. Mmm, such tasty, tasty despair. Well, the bare minimum of Firmament Surgeons needed to work the Night Clock is ten, and there are currently only nine extant, with the tenth slated to be born any day now. So the devil-in-dreams attempts to seize its chance by having its minions the Autoscopes and Toyceivers (which, honestly, both sound like something Meloy made up as a 10-year-old and decided to throw in here because they still sound kinda sorta cool, I guess?) to build an army of machines to hunt down and destroy all of the remaining Firmament Surgeons, or at least enough of them that it can wrest control of Dark Time away from humanity forever and then spend the rest of eternity just having loads of fun fucking their shit up. And so the race to beat the clock begins . . . the Night Clock, that is. Mwa ha ha ha!

Ahem, sorry. Right, so, as best I can gather, that is the plot of this book. I say as best I can gather because the author took the concept of dream logic to its extreme and pretty much did away with any sort of linearity or straightforward storytelling here, instead tossing a bunch of disparate patchwork fragments together into a narrative quilt that barely moves the plot in anything like a forward direction for probably 90% of the book, and then hits you with the main plot towards the very end, right when you’re just starting to figure out who everyone is and what their role is supposed to be. Considering that The Night Clock is about dreams, this sort of writing style could actually have worked in favor of the concept. However, in order for that to be the case, one needs to see a very clear distinction between the dream reality and, er . . . reality reality, and the main characters while they’re in those different realities. As it stands, it’s pretty much impossible to do that once we know about Dark Time, the Quays and the rest. What happens instead is that an assortment of vaguely defined characters move around between the dream world and waking world, doing things that barely seem to make sense or have anything to do with the story (What is Les’s deal exactly? And what the hell was that fetus in the jar all about?)

Which brings me to one of my main complaints with this book: there are way too damn many characters who aren’t quite distinguishable from one another. And I don’t mean just the supporting cast—Meloy presents a handful of point-of-view characters, and even they were pretty bland and undifferentiated for the most part, making it a nigh herculean task to care about any of them. The exception was Chloe, the unborn tenth Firmament Surgeon, who for some reason that is never explained (honestly, there’s a whole LOT of shit left unexplained) has a dual existence in the womb and in her Quay (dream realm) as a sort of ageless wide-eyed innocent. And though they aren’t p.o.v. characters, some of the sentient animals are quite cool, especially a tiger called Bronze John and a Saluki named Bix.

Another big problem I had with the protagonists is the morally outrageous thing they do at the end of the book to capture the central villain. I hesitate to spoil it for anyone who does still want to read the book, but (consider yourself warned—if you don’t want to read the spoiler, go straight to the next paragraph!) they essentially murder an innocent man—innocent, at least, with respect to the rest of the story. The author goes out of his way to stress that the guy is a morally/psychologically sick individual. So I guess that’s supposed to make it okay? Yeah, fuck that. Murder is murder, and the members of the Night Clock all either participate in or witness that murder. Yet none of them ever questions it, or is even the slightest bit traumatized or bothered by it, including a couple of medical professionals (Hippocratic oath, anyone?) and the few children who are present. His death was not gentle either—it was gruesome and painful. In the end, the murdered character became a convenient vessel for their plans and nothing more. For a group of people who are essentially in charge of protecting all of humanity, this was more than a little troubling and left a very sour taste in my mouth over the book’s entire resolution.

The Night Clock does have some points in its favor though. Meloy is certainly an adroit wordsmith with a real knack for darkly poetic turns of phrase. Moreover, there are more than enough solid ideas and characters here to craft not just a much more substantial novel than we got (about 250 pages story-wise) but even a limited series. In the right hands this could’ve been epic, perhaps something like King’s Dark Tower series, where instead of a ka-tet, the members of the Night Clock are gathered together over the course of the series and battle it out with the devil-in-dreams and its followers in various surreal dream settings, until the final major battle settles things once and for all (or doesn’t). Instead we got an anemic novel with far too much stuffed into it and the barest minimum of an attempt to cobble together an actual story out of these pieces. I know this is Meloy’s first novel but he desperately needed an editor to tell him, “Well, gee, Paul, lots of cool ideas here, but it’s not quite there yet. Maybe flesh this out a bit more, let us get to know and love these characters, and make the enemies scarier. Also, lose the cold-blooded murder at the end. These are the good guys.”

Yes, that might have done it. Sadly, the grand and unforgettable saga of a ragtag group of oneiric soldiers and agents coming together to save the beautiful realms of our sleeping selves that this could’ve been remains a, um . . . dream.

Grade: C

‘Chiral Mad’ – A Review

I really love horror anthologies. I mean, I love story collections by single authors too, but there’s nothing quite like reading an anthology and discovering talented writers you’ve never heard of before, or writers you might have heard about but weren’t familiar with their work. I especially love these sorts of themed anthologies, particularly when the theme is interpreted pretty broadly, as it is in Chiral Mad, Michael Bailey’s anthology of (mostly) psychological horror stories. So I had high expectations for this. Perhaps too high.

As the title suggests, the theme of the book is chirality, which refers to a pair of objects, chemical compounds, etc. which are asymmetrical in themselves but mirror images of each other (e.g. hands). The tension in these twenty-eight stories comes from the perversion or corruption of that mirror image. Hence, beneath the charming and perfect facade presented to the public either by the main character themselves or by a loved one, is their dark side, which is often their true nature.

Among the most conceptually interesting pieces in the collection are the ones that deal with children and childhood memories. In Some Pictures in an Album by Gary McMahon, the narrator describes each of the titular photos of himself in detail as he pages through the album, slowly revealing a nightmarish childhood. And in Monica J. O’Rourke’s powerful and depressing Five Adjectives, a story partially structured like an elementary classroom assignment, the young narrator describes a pleasantly idealized version of her father, who in reality is far from ideal. One of my favorite stories in the book, Christian A. Larsen’s Mirror Moments, also concerns a child. In this case the young boy is saved from certain death by a dark angel, but the price for his salvation may be too steep. Of all the stories in this collection, this is the one that seriously begs to be adapted into a novel. I’m dying (no pun intended) to know how this all plays out.

In terms of sheer horror, the best pieces here are Pat R. Steiner’s The Shoe Tree, a suburban serial killer tale in which the author does a pretty solid job of misdirecting the reader until the very end, Julia Stipes’s Not the Child, wherein the pregnant protagonist can see weird little fairy beings that take human souls and must protect her unborn baby from one of the creepy critters, and arguably the most disturbing story in this collection, Patrick Lacey’s Send Your End, about a strangely compelling site on the dark web where people film their suicides live.

I also dig the sort of existential horror presented in stories like R. B. Payne’s Cubicle Farm, where a young man seems to be completely incapable of leaving his horrible job at a debt collection agency, and John Michael Kelley’s The Persistence of Vision, where an assortment of objects in the attic begin to take on some rather menacing properties. For sheer quality of writing alone, another of my favorite pieces here was Gary A. Braunbeck’s Need, which amply contrasts a crabby middle class conservative’s jaundiced view of his much poorer neighbors across the street with the terrible plight of one of those neighbors, a young mother pushed by circumstances to the ultimate act of desperation. This is the kind of subtle, insightful humanist story we really need more of in the Age of Trump. And the intense body horror of Jack Ketchum’s Amid the Walking Wounded, where a man with a bloody nose that won’t quit starts to see ghosts in his hospital room, is pretty solid as the penultimate piece in this collection.

That being said, while the book doesn’t contain any truly bad stories, a few too many of them were mediocre for me to recommend this as a must have for fans of these types of anthologies. Sometimes the problem is that the writer doesn’t quite know what tone he or she is going for, or they try to juggle too much. For example, A Flawed Fantasy by Jeff Strand and Inevitable by Meghan Arcuri nicely straddle the line between humor and horror, though in the end neither was quite as satisfying as they should’ve been. While the writing itself is consistently above par, the way the stories play out is sometimes confusing, such as in Gene O’Neill’s The White Quetzal, Erik T. Johnson’s Apologies and Barry J. Kaplan’s Underwater. I suppose that sort of confusion is inevitable in a collection of psychological horror pieces, where frequently nothing is quite as it seems. For some readers that may enhance their experience. If so, then fantastic. I might not quibble as much with it in a novel, where the author has room to play with that confusion before resolving the story in a satisfactory way, but for me a short story is best when it gets in, makes its point and gets out. Too much larking about without a meaty twist or a solid resolution tends to leave me cold. Some writers, like Robert Aickman, can pull that off perfectly, but he was a true master. Very few writers could do what Aickman did and get away with it.

I will point out that none of the authors in this collection, and presumably its sequels, were paid. This was strictly a volunteer effort, and the profits from it all go to benefiting a Down syndrome charity, certainly a worthy cause and one of the reasons I bought the book. I’m still debating whether I want to shell out the cash though for Chiral Mad 2 or Chiral Mad 3. Maybe eventually, but not for awhile.

Grade: B

Hey, Hollywood, Take a Cue from the Success of ‘It’ and Make These Books Into Movies Already

So, the film version of one of Stephen King’s best novels (in my humble opinion), It, just became the highest grossing horror film ever, surpassing The Exorcist. Why is that? It might be easy to chalk it up to King’s popularity, but given how badly The Dark Tower, another film based on a successful King book (actually a series of books), fared over the summer, it’s clearly more than that. Of course, there’s unarguably a phenomenal difference in quality between those two films, and that certainly made a difference. But I think it’s more than that. I think the concept of coming-of-age stories combined with horror often work so well because there is just something innately horrific about blossoming adolescence, this strange transformation from child to adult, all the weird new feelings and awkwardness, and the sense of horrible unfairness that comes from a growing awareness of oneself and one’s place in the world while you are still legally powerless to do much of anything about it. It capitalized on that perfectly by pitting 12-year-old kids who don’t fit in at school and who are dealing with their own problems at home against a shape-shifting monster that only they can see.

If you think about the film that It replaced in the top spot, The Exorcist, you should quickly realize that it actually dealt with the same theme of budding pubescence being that time of life when we are most susceptible to evil. But there was only one child in that story. Here you have seven, each of them a sort of archetype of uncouth adolescence. Bill Denbrough is the quiet kid still processing the tragic loss of his beloved younger sibling; Ben Hanscomb is the sensitive fat kid; Richie Tozier is the smart-ass who covers his insecurity with constant jokes; Mike Hanlon is the rare black kid in a predominantly white town; Eddie Kaspbrak is the kid whose Smother has made him neurotic; Stanley Uris is the brilliant Jewish nerd; and Bevery Marsh, the sole female in the group, is the abused kid. Most of us can find ourselves in there somewhere, if not in just one character then in a combination of them. (I think I’m equal parts Stan, Ben and Mike, with a wee smidge of Bev.)

Anyway, the formula of tweens and young teen(s) confronting the supernatural clearly speaks to all of us on some level. When done well, these tend to be among the strongest horror cinema: The Sixth Sense, Let the Right One In (and its American remake Let Me In), The Lost Boys. When done superbly, they are unforgettable. It has now attained that status. Will the sequel live up to the first film? With the same director and production team behind it, I suspect it’ll be pretty good but will ultimately not achieve the same degree of critical acclaim. Not unless it uses plenty of flashbacks. While the scariness of Pennywise was certainly important,  what ultimately made It so successful was the kids. They were well-written characters, and the young actors playing them had real chemistry.

And that’s why Hollywood needs to strike while the iron is hot and put these other properties that use basically the same formula into production. And which properties are those, you’re wondering? I mean the ones I wrote about in this article from 2013, which has never been more timely. To varying degrees, they all pretty well fit this theme:

Five Horror & Dark Fantasy Novels That Need to Be Movies Now

In addition, I will add one more.

Neverland – Douglas Clegg

The kids here are a bit younger than It‘s protagonists, but they still are left largely to themselves to deal with the growing evil on the island where their extended family vacations every summer. This is my all-time favorite of Clegg’s novels. The Southern Gothic elements combined with kids confronting a Lovecraftian horror is a match made in heaven. Or hell. Either one. The monster, largely unseen in the book, allows more for the imagination than Pennywise (and therefore will save on special effects budget), meaning there’s a lot more focus on the kids and the growing unease we experience as we watch them become slowly corrupted by whatever cosmic entity resides on Gull Island. Oh, and there are ghosts too.

With its beautiful coastal island setting and quirky Southern characters, this is a horror novel begging to be put onto film. Besides, it’s high time Hollywood showed some love for one of the best American horror writers around, a man just as hardworking and prolific as King, and for my money anyway, often a stronger writer. Even with his less successful works, Clegg knows how to sell his characters. But this is definitely one of Clegg’s best books, and it really ought to be a movie.

So, come on, Hollywood. Get on these pronto, but only if you want to make money. 😉

Stephen Graham Jones’s ‘Mapping the Interior’ – A Review

I recently came into a little bit of money, and to celebrate, I did something I rarely do: I bought some new books from Amazon. Usually I settle for the used books I can pick up here and there. Not this time. This time I picked up several books from my ever-growing Must Read list, including this novella from Stephen Graham Jones, an author of Blackfeet ancestry. This was my introduction to his work, and it certainly made me want to read more by Jones.

Mapping the Interior is a novella narrated by a poor Native American boy who suddenly finds himself contending with the ghost of his own father, the victim of a mysterious drowning many years before the story takes place. Junior, as he is known to his family, lives with his widowed mother and epileptic little brother Dino (or Deener, as he endearingly calls him)—his mother is somewhat distant, having never fully recovered from her husband’s death, and Junior feels obligated to look after his brother, who is often the subject of bullying because of his illness, shyness and learning impairment. Now living off the reservation thanks largely to his father’s death, Junior and his family deal with the poverty and loneliness of their new life, as well as their growing disconnection from their Native heritage. When Junior’s father’s ghost begins to appear to him at their new residence during his sleepwalking episodes, he must figure out whether this is a blessing or a curse.

What I most love about this story is how authentic the narrator’s voice is. I don’t just mean that he perfectly captures the spirit (no pun intended) of a modern Native American youth, although he does do that. I mean that he comes across as a real kid, with the cadences of his thought patterns feeling genuine, stripped of the pretentiousness of adulthood, oddly unique without being forced. Anyone who regularly reads this blog will know that one of my major pet peeves in genre fiction is when child characters are not fully developed, and when they are clearly only there to serve the plot. That’s generally less of an issue when the child character is the narrator, so Jones did have a slight advantage there, but still, this is the kind of child character I adore: he is innocent and precocious, noble and self-involved all at the same time. He is, in other words, a real human child, full of the complexities and contradictions that all children have. Which makes his struggle to understand himself and his place in the world all too familiar.

Jones’s  story doesn’t delve too far into the arcane aspects of Native American history and tradition, which is perfectly in keeping with the fact that Junior is largely disengaged from and oblivious to his own culture. While he is clearly impressed with his father’s fancy dancer costume and accoutrements, he is also understandably intimidated and even frightened by them, especially as he begins to recognize that his father may not necessarily have brought himself back from death for benevolent reasons.

Mapping the Interior is a book that dissects and demystifies the myth of the always patient, sympathetic and unselfish Native without disparaging the culture as a whole, which only a Native writer could probably pull off. Moreover, it’s a truly creepy piece of writing, which makes Stephen Graham Jones a vital and unique voice in the horror fiction community. At $8.00 a pop for a new copy on Amazon, this may seem a bit high for a 112-page novella, but trust me, this is quality publication. The cover bears a beautiful illustration by Greg Ruth, and its texture is wonderfully velvety to the touch, such that I have spent countless minutes simply running my fingertips over it and marveling at its softness. If you’re at all a fan of actual hard-copy books, this is one worth having in your personal library, and worth reading, again and again.

Grade: A

‘Between Time and Terror’ – A Review

Not long ago my local library had a major book sale, and I went hog-wild, picking up a metric crap-ton of mostly old sci-fi and fantasy paperbacks (a quarter for paperbacks, fifty cents for trades, a dollar for hardbacks—you can’t go wrong with prices like that), including a few anthologies. This one, Between Time and Terror, edited by Robert Weinberg, et al, got the honor of being my first read from that glorious haul.

Granted, many of these stories were already familiar to me,  but all-in-all it was a worthwhile trip through memory lane and nice introduction to some other stories I’d not yet read. The theme of the book was science fiction meets horror, and boy were there some doozies in here. The stories were mostly arranged in the chronological order of their writing, so it was no surprise that the first entry was from the man who practically invented this sub-genre, H. P. Lovecraft, represented here by one of his best pieces, The Colour Out of Space.  Decades after it was written, this story still contains one of the single most chilling lines ever put on paper:

Questioning tactfully, Ammi could get no clear data at all about the missing Zenas. “In the well—he lives in the well—” was all that the clouded father would say.

Even out of context, the line makes me shiver. Second up was Frank Belknap Long’s The Man with a Thousands Legs, which, following such a timeless masterpiece as the Lovecraft story, came across as quaint and a little too smirk-worthy for this anthology. In another anthology—say, Old-Timey Science Gone Wrong or some such—this would’ve been a fine entry, but while it technically fit the theme of the book, I just felt there were better choices that could’ve been made from this author (The Hounds of Tindalos anyone?) Then we had Clark Ashton Smith’s atmospheric extra-planetary tale The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis, which really should’ve been the follow-up to Lovecraft.

For my money, however, the star of this collection was the fourth entry, John W. Campbell, Jr.’s Who Goes There?, the novella on which several film adaptations, including most notably John Carpenter’s The Thing, have been based. I’d heard of this story but never read it before, figuring it was probably something akin to the mediocre 1950s film. Boy, was I ever wrong. Of the three films based on the story (so far), Carpenter’s comes the closest to capturing the tension and paranoia of a story that was remarkably first published in 1937 and that still holds up to this day. Indeed, if I hadn’t known the date of its initial publication, I would swear this story had actually been written within the last thirty years. This alone was worth the quarter I paid for the book.

After this, the short if effective Robert Heinlein piece They felt almost like an afterthought. In fact, overall this book could’ve done with some more thoughtful editing. With three editors running the show, I suspect it was a bit of the too-many-cooks problem, but there you go. Heinlein’s short is followed by Robert Bloch’s It Happened Tomorrow, a story that, although not badly written, definitely shows its age in a number of ways. Asleep in Armageddon by Ray Bradbury was an original and nicely creepy if not all that scary tale of an astronaut biding his time on a strange world as the alien voices in his head attempt to drive him mad.

Arthur C. Clarke can always be counted on to give an entertaining story, and A Walk in the Dark, while fairly simple and straightforward, delivers with excellent timing and atmosphere to spare. Philip K. Dick’s The Father-Thing was probably my  second favorite entry in this collection, after Who Goes There? A young suburban boy has good reason to believe his dad has been replaced by some kind of body-snatcher and decides to investigate. Richard Matheson’s Born of Man and Woman, about an abused mutant child,  was more sad than frightening, and Isaac Asimov’s Hell-Fire, a two page short-short, recasts the beginning of the Nuclear Age in very sinister terms.

A couple of the stories in this collection really felt like a stretch as far as the science fiction aspect went. Dean Koontz’s Nightmare Gang answers the question, what would happen if a sadistic psychopath with horrible mental powers became leader of an outlaw biker gang? Not a bad story (I’m generally not a fan of Koontz’s novels, but he’s more successful in short form); it just felt out of place here. But the real head-scratcher here was David Morrell’s Orange Is for Anguish, Blue for Insanity. First, I have to point out that this is one of my all-time favorite horror stories, and it’s always a pleasure to read. In this piece, a Vincent van Gogh analog named Van Dorn who went insane and took his own life provides the backdrop for the tale of a college art student who watches helplessly as his best friend, an aspiring Van Dorn scholar, inexplicably falls into the exact same patterns the Victorian painter did, and begins to repeat the path that led him to insanity. It’s a complex story with a hell of a payoff, but nothing about it suggests science fiction, and it really didn’t belong in this anthology.

But I’m getting out of order now. After the Koontz piece came the truly disturbing Soft by F. Paul Wilson, about a new disease that’s picking off humanity by dissolving their bones and turning them into immobile blobs. Meanwhile, John Shirley’s Ticket to Heaven, an early cyberpunk offering, wonders what would happen if we developed the tech to vacation in Heaven while our bodies remain safe and alive back on Earth. (The short answer: it’s not as great for humanity as you might think.) Dan Simmons Metastasis, which is also found in his excellent Prayers to Broken Stones collection that I recommend highly, deals with invisible cancer vampires—invisible, that is, to all but the story’s protagonist. And last but not least is Clive Barker’s The Age of Desire, a modern day take on mad science where the subject of an experiment develops uncontrollable sexual desires for . . . everyone and everything.

Overall, not a terrible collection. Some bona fide classics offset the lesser entries, and a couple of baffling inclusions with respect to the book’s theme could easily have been replaced with, say, Stephen King’s The Jaunt, Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream or even Connie Willis’s haunting All My Darling Daughters. At any rate, all of these stories can be found elsewhere, but what really appeals about collections like these is seeing where the editors’ heads are at and comparing the stories to see how the theme has progressed. Between Time and Terror was released in 1995, and I’d be curious to see which pieces would be collected by the same editors in 2017.

Grade: B+

Trezza Azopardi’s ‘Remember Me’ – A Review

Trezza Azzopardi’s sophomore novel Remember Me may well be the most depressing book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which at least ended on a hopeful note. No such luck here. Remember Me is the story of a thieving British bag lady, whose ill-fated life is traced from her lowly birth around the outset of WWII to the final shocking revelation of how she came to be the mostly forgotten wretch and outcast she is when we first meet her in her seventies.

Our heroine is known by a variety of names throughout the course of the book depending on who you ask and where we are in the arc of her life. Known to her parents as Lilian, she loses her mentally unstable mother to an unspecified illness when she is still a very young child. Her alcoholic father, unable to cope with the little girl after the death of his wife, soon shuffles her off to her stern and emotionally distant widower grandfather’s place—where her name is changed to Patricia and her “tell-tale” flaming red hair is died dark. This is more or less the last we see of dear old Dad, and Granddad barely tolerates her presence. However, she does befriend her grandfather’s foreign boarder, Mr. Stadnik (whom it is hinted might be a displaced European Jew), a kind older man who becomes something of an emotional anchor for Lilian in her early years.

Eventually her grandfather sends her, along with Stadnik, away to his widowed sister’s failing farm. Things go alright for awhile . . . until Patricia’s aunt and Stadnik begin a romantic relationship that earns the displeasure of the local cleric, and Stadnik too abandons her, though (mercifully) not by his own choice. Young Patricia nevertheless grows into early adolescence under her aunt’s laissez-faire watch and momentarily finds love with a local boy, Joseph, who knocks her up and then splits. Yet again abandoned, in order to avoid the coming scandal Patricia leaves her aunt, her last remaining family member, for good. Pregnant, friendless and now without family, troubled, naive and uneducated, with less and less to keep her tied to reality, the poor girl is taken in by a charlatan spiritualist and his caustic and jealous female assistant, who promptly change her name to Winnie and exploit her growing mental instability, making her their star attraction. They also force her to submit to a back alley abortion and introduce her to an abhorrent client of theirs, a sleazy shoemaker with a taste for adolescent girls, and it only gets worse from here.

As Lilian/Patricia/Winnie/?’s circumstances continue to grow steadily more awful, the reader is left devastated, hoping—nay,  praying—for some kind of redemption for the protagonist after a life chock full of misfortune and heartache. That’s usually how these things go, right? Alas, gentle reader, this is not that kind of book. The closest we get to a happy ending for our girl is a final peek into her thought process at the end, a means of understanding why she has become the person she has.

I’ll level with you: this was a hard book to read. I’m a fan of horror stories of all kinds, but this to me is the most horrific sort I’ve ever encountered because it is not merely plausible, it is the kind of thing that happens all too often, frequently right under our noses. As you might expect, there’s a lesson here about the plight of the homeless, and it is deftly handled if so relentlessly depressing at times that more than once I felt compelled to stop reading. Ultimately my sense of moral obligation won out, and I am at least glad I read to the end, even if I didn’t get the relief I would’ve liked. No, this is not the sort of book you read for pleasure; you should know that going into it. But it is the kind of book that gives you perspective on a minority that exists in our everyday world but which we rarely take notice of, and that’s the point of both the book’s title and its main character’s constantly shifting name and identity. Here is a person who has floated through her entire life almost transparently (not by choice, at least not at first) like the ghosts she believes she communicates with, and like those ghosts, she clamors not to be forgotten, to not have lived her entire sad and crummy life in vain. Let’s hope she doesn’t.

Grade: B

Stephen M. Irwin’s ‘The Dead Path’ – A Review

The Dead Path was Australian author Stephen M. Irwin‘s debut novel, and as debuts go, it isn’t half bad. The book follows antiques expert and guy-who-can-see-ghosts Nicholas Close (whose physical description put me in the mind of Neil Gaiman circa Good Omens for some reason), an Australian living abroad in England when his beautiful young wife meets an accidental end and sends Nicholas into a downward spiral that leads him back to his old home town of Tallong in Southern Australia to lick his wounds. But something is very much amiss in the otherwise peaceful and languid community where Nicholas grew up, and it’s connected to both the murder of his childhood buddy Tristram and the premature death of his own father. With all this tragedy in Nicholas’s life, it’s exceedingly obvious that something horrible is residing in Tallong, and he must take it upon himself to find out exactly what.

When he begins to investigate the town’s history, Nicholas discovers that children have a history of disappearing in Tallong as far back as the town’s founding. And so, with the help of an assortment of oddball characters—his slightly clairvoyant sister, an Indian priest, the widow of Tristram’s brother, a spunky 10-year-old girl—Nicholas delves into the beating heart of Tallong’s evil: an ancient patch of woods off Carmichael Road inhabited by an evil older than the town itself.

I would love to say that the novel was a real page-turner from beginning to end. Unfortunately, I can’t quite make that claim. Despite a pretty solid (if not particularly original) premise, the story takes a bit of time to build, and the big reveal of who’s behind the child murders isn’t terribly shocking. Think Hansel and Gretel and you won’t be far off the mark. In fact, there is something quite reminiscent of the darker Grimm’s fairy tales here, updated for a modern audience. The villain is not entirely unsympathetic, but she is fairly cookie-cutter and a bit too cartoonish to be fully effective at inducing chills. That said, the final confrontation between Nicholas and the Big Bad is pretty tense. The final act of the book is when it really shifts into high gear, and it’s a nail-biter for sure.

In terms of flaws, there are some plot issues that need work, such as the fact that one of the key characters doesn’t make an appearance until late in the book and could’ve used some fleshing out so that the reader would’ve had more emotional investment in her when she winds up in peril near the end of the story. Likewise, perhaps an early scene or two of the villain in action would’ve been nice. It’s not like the mystery of her identity was all that compelling anyway, and it would’ve been better storytelling to flesh out her history over the course of the book rather than have the big info dump at the end where she explains to Nicholas where she came from and why she does what she does, a technique so cliched at this point it’s almost parody. Oh, and if you’re terrified of spiders, you may want to avoid this one as there are a lot of spiders in it. Then again, you’re reading a horror novel. Why wouldn’t you want to be frightened by an army of arachnids?

On the positive side, the writing is crisp and Irwin displays a real knack for poetic turns of phrase, especially in his descriptions of nature. Most of his central characters are pretty well delineated too. I especially liked Nicholas’s sister Suzette and wish she’d played a bigger role in the book’s final act, but at least she wasn’t killed off. She and Nicholas could even team up for a sequel. With her psychic impressions and knowledge of witchcraft and Nicholas’s ability to see ghosts (“I see dead people . . .”), they would make a kick-ass paranormal investigation team. I was also quite fond of the Indian priest Reverend Anand, though the older priest was a bit much. I think he was supposed to be likably cantankerous, but instead he just came off as racist and unpleasant. The appearance of a certain famous nature spirit at the end was a nice touch—I could see Guillermo del Toro’s influence in its description. Overall, a solid if imperfect opener for a promising writer.

Grade: B